Coconut oil has had a rough ride. Today, it’s popular in certain circles of the western world, but is certainly less mainstream than in the 1950s. Not to mention it’s been used for thousands of years by tropical cultures. It’s a bizarre dichotomy. While seen as an essential item by those interested in alternative health, it’s also a virtual unknown to others. What’s stranger is that many advocates claim the oil can demonstrate miracle-like properties. Why is there such disparity? Well, lather up. Here, we’ll take a look at its recent past as a health food, dispel a few myths, and take a look at a few of the more interesting applications out there today.
A tumultuous past
In the 1950s coconut oil was a popular item, both at home and in the food manufacturing industry. Broadly speaking, two different forms of coconut oil were in use. On one hand, we had virgin coconut oil. This is a minimally processed form of oil and was a commonly used in the household for cooking. On the other hand, we had hydrogenised (or partially hydrogenised) coconut oil. This process changes the chemical structure of the oil by forcing hydrogen into it. Why would you do such a thing, you ask? It turns out that this process raises the melting point of the oil. As such, prepared foods last longer and don’t melt near room temperature. You can see why food manufacturers fell in love with hydrogenised oils.
The wheels fell off when flawed studies (we’ll talk about why later) began to link a variety of cardiovascular problems with saturated fats. The reputation of coconut oil, which boasts the highest saturated fat content of the edible oils, was inevitably damaged. In an unfortunate double-blow, other studies began to publicize the health risks associated with trans-fats. While unarguably valid, food industry pundits muddied the waters by discrediting coconut oil as a whole – rather than just the not-so-healthy hydrogenised varieties. Tisk tisk.
It’s taken decades to tease out truths from falsehoods. In the world of alternative health it’s now generally accepted that the saturated fats come in many forms; not all of which are unhealthy. As we’ll see, some saturated fats, including coconut oil, demonstrate exceptional health benefits when properly supported by a healthy lifestyle. When it comes to trans-fat-rich hydrogenised coconut oil however, there is very little dispute. Numerous studies have now linked trans-fats to heart disease, high cholesterol (of the ‘bad’ LDL variety) and increasingly, diabetes. Fortunately, it’s now highly unusual to come across edible hydrogenised forms of the oil.
The number-one factor contributing to the air of ambiguity around coconut oil is the saturated fat myth. Even some well-meaning articles from establishment sources paint a confusing picture; they fail to place it definitively in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ basket. Things become a little clearer when we look to emerging studies.
It’s now known that the fatty acids found in saturated fats come in three main varieties: short-chain, medium-chain and long-chain, named in reference to their chemical structures. The body processes each of these very differently. Long-chain varieties for example, are difficult for the body to metabolize. They tend to outstay their welcome in the body and are associated with a number of health risks. Unfortunately these have given a bad name to all saturated fats.
Medium-chain varieties, we now know, are easily digested by the body and can quickly be converted into energy by the liver. Which type is coconut oil? You guessed it: medium chain. When eaten in moderate amounts (less than around 2 tablespoons per day), coconut oil can be utilized by the body for optimal health. Research to date has mostly failed to identify these benefits, as most popularized studies were carried out on hydrogenised oil. A few of the benefits are now known to include:
- Antifungal & antibacterial properties
- Improved metabolism
- Supports heart health
- Promotes healthy, clear skin
- Provides energy without an insulin spike
You may be asking yourself, can coconut oil really promote healthy, clear skin? Doesn’t oily skin cause acne? This leads us to our second myth, that coconut oil causes breakouts. Those familiar with this myth probably recall being horrified at the sight of a friend lathering themselves, face and all, with coconut oil. You probably recall thinking that while they have beautiful skin, it would surely be the end of your face. This fear may have stemmed from having once used an oil on your face only to suffer a breakout in the following days. It turns out there’s a very good reason for this, and it may change your mind when it comes to using coconut oil for skin care.
Since these medium-chain fatty acids are easily broken down, the face absorbs the oil beautifully. The antifungal and antibacterial properties then do their magic, helping moisturize and prevent breakouts. These very properties however, can occasionally cause you trouble – temporarily at least. The lubricated pores create a smooth channel for long buried toxins and debris to be eliminated. During this process the debris can become clogged and cause a breakout – the frustrating dark-side of the detoxification process. Once the process is complete however, you should be home free. Note that the length of time necessary for this to happen will vary from person to person.
An unfortunate few may continue to have skin issues beyond this initial period. If this is you, it may be worth looking at a supporting diet (and lifestyle) to prevent the buildup of toxins in the first place. Your skin will have no reason not to reward you for your efforts. So, while this myth is partially true, your perseverance will pay off in the long run.
A quick cyberspace search will yield a plethora of applications for coconut oil. So, in the interest of… interest, let’s take a look at a few surprising (yet useful) applications that may tickle your curiosity.
An ancient Indian method of body detoxification. By swishing coconut oil around in your mouth you can literally ‘pull’ bacteria from your mouth and body. Folks have reported relief from numerous chronic conditions including diabetes, bad breath, skin issues; the list goes on. Some evidence even shows that oil pulling has the potential to halt the development of cavities by eliminating the bacteria that cause decay.
But, what’s the mechanism that brings relief from chronic illnesses? One interesting explanation is that oil pulling reduces the load on the immune system. By manually removing toxins from the body, we free up the immune system to focus its sights on other invaders. Want to give it a try? Check out a great video on oil pulling here.
Massaging coconut oil into the feet is a little-known but incredibly versatile practice. Above all, massaging the feet activates acupressure points. Not only does it feel incredible, it can also have a healing effect on the various systems of the body. If that’s not enough, you’ll also be doing yourself a number of other favors. Coconut oil will moisturize dry feet and treat a number of conditions ranging from Athletes foot, to foot odor, ingrown toenails and beyond.
This one might seem simple, but there’s more to it once you dig below the surface. Not only will this help you increase your coconut oil intake, it can also help you improve your exposure to good salts. Most salted butters contain salts that are readily available and, above all, cheap. They lack the minerals that occur in high quality natural salts. Let your salt cravings work for you by giving your body the nutrition it’s asking for. Use a pinch of Himalayan crystal salt with your coconut oil to get a buttery taste that’s great for you.